Chapter 5

Dieter Steffen stared intently at the molecule floating in the air above his upturned palms. Like a magic fairy hovering over the cupped hands of a wonder-filled child, the molecule rose when Dieter raised his hands, sank when he lowered them. To Dieter Steffen, this molecule was a magic fairy, as wondrous as any mythical being that ever held a child enthralled.

The orthogonal Diels-Alder adduct: five benzene rings, some associated nitrogens, fluorines, and a solitary silicon. It was an exotic, and, Dieter thought, a profound molecule—profound in the way that a chessboard is profound before the first piece has been moved, as a piano is profound before the first note has been played. It was profound as DNA itself was profound: it embodied an infinitude of possibilities. This molecule, a billionth of a meter across, was the one he had been seeking for six years. It was, he dared to hope, the last piece needed to complete his and Pavel’s machine. If Dieter’s calculations were correct, this simple molecule was the key that would unlock the tabernacle in which resided the Holy Grail itself.

Nitrogen, carbon, silicon, fluorine—red, black, white, green: a perfect T, two walls intersecting at a right angle. It looked like part of a building made of colorful plastic blocks. Dieter was only vaguely aware that he was not looking at the molecule itself, but at an image of it on a computer screen. And it was not floating in the air in front of him; that was an illusion created by the visor through which he looked, just as the image of his hands was generated by the data gauntlets that he wore. He grabbed the model, one hand on each wall, and twisted it. He felt the resistance to this torsion through the data gloves: the molecule wanted to keep its shape. Using a foot pedal, he increased the power in the gloves— just a fraction, a factor of 1.1. He twisted the molecule again and felt it snap: the two walls now lay in the same plane, one on top of the other, like two sheets of multi-colored paper held by an invisible spring. He couldn’t pry them apart more than a tiny bit without again increasing the power with the foot pedal.

An illusion: but to Dieter Steffen this molecule was more real than the chair in which he sat. It was more real than the visor and the speakers in his headset, or the twenty-five inch Digital MicroSystems graphics workstation in front of him, more real than the data gauntlets on his hands or the cradle in which his right foot rested. This molecule was reality itself.

A billionth of a meter. Even after all these years of working on nanomachines, Dieter had trouble imagining something so small. Compared to the devices that he and Pavel designed, a virus would look like a jumbo jet beside a Wright Brothers’ flyer. And like the airplane, like the wheel, like the first tool used to create the first fire, Dieter and Pavel’s machine would forever change the relationship of humankind to the universe.

As soon as Pavel and Dieter perfected the design and refined the manufacturing process, their machine would be able to change any one DNA sequence into any other DNA sequence. With this capability the age of the new alchemy would truly begin. With this technology all things would become mutable: oil spill would become fish food, smog would become clear air, the cystic fibrosis gene would become sound. Imagine: the dying child lies on the hospital bed, a simple injection into his blood, and lo, behold the child arise and walk.

All they had to do was complete the design and take it from simulation into the world.

“All they had to do. . .”. It was like saying all they had to do was flap their wings and fly to Pluto. In computer simulation, it was possible to design simple nanomachines. It was even possible to build simple machines that worked in the protected, eutactic environment of the laboratory. Eutactic environments—such as perfect crystals, the interiors of protein molecules, or “machine-phase” systems—were characterized by precise molecular order. But Pavel and Dieter’s machine was designed to work on DNA, and DNA wasn’t generally found in eutactic environments. DNA was generally found in the disordered solution environment of biological structures on a cellular scale. To build a machine that could survive in that real, meat world—that was the challenge. The real world, where hungry hydrogens came swooping from everywhere like demonic flying raptors; where ultraviolet light shone down like deathrays from the heavens; where the rise in temperature from comfortable room to warm room would have the same effect as a visit to the surface of Venus. To make a programmable nanomachine for DNA repair that could survive in the real world was to cure cancer, prevent genetic diseases, and possibly, to bring about an end to aging and bestow on mankind the gift or curse of immortality.

It was a dream that only the most ambitious and most gifted even dared to dream—even to experience it required mastery of twentieth century physics, molecular genetics, and human physiology. Dieter Steffen and his partner Pavel Isaacs were two of the gifted.

And now, today, Pavel had told Dieter that he had made not one, but two breakthroughs that would allow them, together, finally to complete the solution to the problem. This was Nobel Prize work, but much more than that. This was work that would make them gods.

The one small hitch was that Dieter did not really understand Pavel’s breakthroughs: a fractal compression algorithm for storing vast amounts of information, and a graphite laser evaporation technique for constructing a C60 buckminsterfullerene shell around a working computational element. Dieter had been in this situation before, when Pavel had explained something beyond his grasp. And invariably, after he had thought about it, zoned on it, he had come to understand. This had been true when they first met at MIT during the fall of 1987, and it remained true today, nearly ten years later. All Dieter had to do was think. So this would be his task for the day: to concentrate and wait for insight. He was sure it would come.

But something wasn’t right. What? It took him a minute to realize that it was the music coming through his headset that was out of place. It wasn’t right because he could hear it—a single violin doing the work of a quartet, making a choir from a single voice: the Bach partita in A minor. When the music was right Dieter couldn’t hear it at all: he could only hear the molecule speaking to him, like a lover. It was time to switch to a more invisible music. He touched his fingertips together and felt the pressure on his fingers release.

He glanced at his hands on the keyboard. The metallic-grey data gauntlets looked like electronic hockey gloves, and his pink fingers protruded beneath them—making his hands look like hermit crabs carrying their comically oversized shells above them. With a few quick keystrokes he changed the music coming through his headset from Bach to Eno. The A-minor partita was good for the transition to total concentration, from meat reality to virtual reality. But once his mind was in the zone even Bach seemed too bound to the leaden world, to tangible things. Eno was zone music. With a once-practiced, now habitual movement he raised his hands from the keyboard and slapped them outward, as if giving the back of his hand to two insolent cads at once. As the inertial digi-lock sensors swung around his fingers and the gloves engaged, he was vaguely aware of the music fading to invisibility.

He gave the molecule a flick with the index finger of his right hand and watched it spin in its virtual space. In the upper right hand corner of the screen a virtual clock showed 18:48 Basel Local Time. It was still early in the day; there was plenty of time. The hands he saw on the screen were his hands. The molecule was an extension of his thought. He was ready to go back to work.

Suddenly he was startled by the light flashing on the telephone in the right corner of his desk. With the exception of his colleague Pavel, virtually nobody ever called Dieter. And Pavel always sent e-mail first, to warn him that a call was coming. Since he received calls so seldom, usually wrong numbers, and since his calls invariably came when he was deepest in concentration, he had long since disconnected the ringer; yet even the faint orange light was a jarring invasion of his mental space. It took three flashes of the light until he had recovered sufficiently to remove his headset, and another flash or two before he could answer.

“Steffen,” he said. He pronounced Steffen with a long sibilant “sh,” his tongue back deep in his mouth: Schhhh-teffen.”

“Hello, Doctor Steffen,” said an American-accented woman’s voice. “My name is Judith Knight. I am chief scientist at Human Potential, Incorporated, in Boulder, Colorado.”

“Dr. Knight,” Dieter said. “I am honored to receive your call. How can I help you?”

“Dr. Steffen, I wish to speak with you on a matter of some urgency. Could you make yourself available for an hour or so, in a few hours’ time—that is, this evening?”

“Certainly, Dr. Knight. I am at your disposal. We can speak now, if you wish.”

“No; I mean that we should meet in person. In fact, I have flown to Basel expressly to speak with you. I have only now arrived; I need only a little time to refresh. Can you suggest a place for us to meet?”

This was an extraordinary request. It took Dieter a moment to think what to say. And he was distracted by the noises coming over the line—conversations, music, the clinking of glass. Could it be that Dr. Knight was calling him from a public phone in a restaurant? A bar?

“There is a café near the art museum, in the old section of Basel that we call St. Albans,” Dieter said, trying to ignore the distracting sounds. “It is called the Kunsthalle Café; it is on an inside terrace, so it is pleasant to sit in the air, even so late in the year. Any cab driver can take you there.”

Dieter assumed that this was true; he had read about the place in a newspaper. He himself confined his meals to his apartment and the Hoff-Zeigy employee cafeteria.

“That sounds wonderful. Shall we say eight PM, or what do Europeans say, twenty o’clock?”

“Very well,” he said.

“Good. I am tall, I will be wearing a dress with a floral print, and a hat with a flower in the brim.”

“Can you tell me what we will be discussing, Dr. Knight?”

“We must talk; that is all I can tell you at this time. It is very important that you tell no one about this call, or that we plan to meet. Please, tell no one. And please forgive my rudeness. We should not stay long on the telephone, so I will say goodbye, until twenty hours.”

“Goodbye,” he said, as he heard the click at the other end.

He placed the receiver in its cradle, slowly. Then he placed the headset back on, trying to put this astonishing conversation out of his mind. What could it possibly be about? Well, he would find out soon enough; in the meantime he would concentrate on his machine and Pavel’s algorithm.

But it did not take him long to realize that the necessary concentration would not be forthcoming. It wasn’t like him to daydream, but that’s exactly what he was doing. In his mind’s eye he was already on his way to a chic café in Basel’s Old Town to keep an appointment with a woman he had never met. Scheiese. He might just as well log off. He took off the headset, removed his foot from the torsion cradle, and switched off the computer.

His thoughts turned back again to the curious phone call. She had said that she wanted to talk to him in person, that it was very important, that she would appreciate it if he would not mention her call to anybody. Under other circumstances he would have dismissed her as a crank.

But it wasn’t just any woman. It was Judith Knight, Chief Scientist at Human Potential, Incorporated, of Boulder, Colorado, the director of her company’s participation in the Human Genome Project. He had known her, by reputation, for years. Her first paper had been presented at the 1973 Gordon Conference on Nucleic Acids, where her comments prompted other scientists to voice their concern about the potentialities of recombinant DNA. At the time of the Gordon Conference she had been fifteen years old, a sophomore in high school. The Gordon Conference participants wrote an open letter to the President of the National Academy of Sciences expressing their reservations, and this letter led to the 1975 Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA Molecules, where the ethical and practical problems of working with DNA were first explicitly addressed by the scientific community. There had been one hundred and thirty-five participants in the Asilomar conference, including fifty-two scientists from outside the United States. Of these one hundred and thirty-five participants, one hundred and thirty were Ph.D.-credentialed scientists. Of the remaining five, four were lawyers. The fifth was Judith Knight. She was seventeen. Her essay “Thoughts about the Human Genome” had appeared in Science in 1980, when she was twenty-two, and it was one of the one of the touchstone documents of the entire Human Genome Project. This worldwide effort to unravel the structure and function of every single gene in the human genetic blueprint was certainly the most ambitious undertaking in the history of science, and Judith Knight was one of its chief architects.

Her essay had not only outlined the science that would be required and the organization that would be needed to coordinate research activities, it had also anticipated the moral issues that the project would raise— from the ethics of research conducted on aborted human fetal tissue, to questions of resource allocation in a world where some people can live forever but some people must die. Since then Dieter had seen her name often; she had become one of the world’s preeminent scientists. Although they had never met, she had been a professor at MIT when he was a graduate student. Judith Knight was no crank. Dieter could only wonder what she could have to say to him that was so urgent that she had flown from Boulder to Basel to divulge it, so private that it could not be discussed by telephone, even a telephone in an unnoticed corner of a busy nightspot, where nobody would be able to overhear her.

Chapter 6

©1999-2010 John Sundman.

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